How to Dictate on Mac: Control Your Mac With Voice Commands

Go ahead, be a dictator

Voice control on the Mac has been available for a long time using the options available in the Dictation system preferences. Beginning with the release of macOS Catalina, the Mac uses Siri for voice control, which improves on the Enhanced Dictation feature of earlier versions of the operating system.

Information in this article applies to macOS Catalina (10.15) through OS X Mountain Lion (10.8).

How to Turn on Voice Control in Catalina

Unlike Enhanced Dictation in earlier versions of the OS, Voice Control in macOS Catalina doesn't send your voice to Apple's servers for conversion. Voice Control is off by default, so you must turn it on to use it.

  1. Choose System Preferences from the Apple menu or from the Dock.

    The System Preferences command under the Apple menu
  2. Click Accessibility.

    Accessibility in macOS System Preferences
  3. Select Voice Control in the sidebar and place a check mark in front of Enable Voice Control.

    Enable Voice Control

    The first time you use Voice Control, your Mac receives a one-time download from Apple.

  4. When Voice Control is active, you see an on-screen microphone. To pause Voice Control, tell it to Go to sleep, or click the word Sleep under the microphone. Turn it back on by saying Wake up.

    Voice Sleep
  5. Say Click Commands or press the Commands button on the Voice Over screen to open a list of the built-in voice commands.

    List of included Voice Commands

    Scroll through to see the types of things you can do with Voice Control.

    Voice Control is familiar with most apps, controls, and on-screen items. Simple examples are:

    • Open Numbers
    • Click New Document
    • Save document

Make Your Own Voice Commands in Catalina

To make your own voice commands, click the plus (+) at the bottom of the list of commands, or say Add Command to enter a custom command.

  1. In the When I Say field, enter the phrase you will say to perform the custom action.

  2. In the While using field, select the related app or Any Application.

  3. In the Perform drop-down menu, choose an action.

    Voice Over actions in system preferences.
  4. Click Done.

Enhanced Dictation in macOS Mojave and Earlier

The Mac has had the ability to take dictation and convert a spoken word into text since the feature was introduced with OS X Mountain Lion. The original Mountain Lion version of Dictation had a few drawbacks, including the need to send a recording of your dictation to Apple servers, where the actual conversion to text was performed.

This not only slowed things down, but it also had some people concerned about privacy issues. Beginning with OS X Mavericks, Dictation can be performed directly on your Mac with no need to send information to the cloud. This provided a performance improvement and eliminated the security concern about sending data to the cloud.

Using Dictation for Voice Commands

The Mac's dictation system isn't limited to speech to text; it can also convert speech to voice commands, letting you control your Mac with your spoken words.

The Mac comes equipped with a number of commands ready for you to use. Once you set up the system, you can use your voice to launch applications, save documents, or search Spotlight, for just a few examples. There's also a large set of commands for navigation, editing, and formatting text.

Customizing Voice Commands

You're not limited to the commands that Apple includes with the Mac OS. You can add your own custom commands that let you open files, open apps, run the workflow, paste text, paste data, and cause any keyboard shortcut to be executed.

Enabling Voice Dictation in macOS Mojave and Earlier

If you want to become a Mac Dictator, follow these steps to set up Mac dictation and create a custom voice command that checks for new mail.

  1. Select System Preferences from the Apple menu, or click System Preferences in the dock.

  2. Select the Keyboard preference pane or the Dictation & Speech preference pane, depending on your operating system version.

    Keyboard in System Preferences
  3. Select the Dictation tab in the preference pane you opened.

    Dictation tab
  4. Use the Dictation radio button to select On.

    Dictation on/off radio buttons

    A warning appears that using Dictation sends a recording of what you say to Apple for conversion to text.

    If you don't want to be encumbered by a wait for Apple servers to convert speech to text or don’t like the idea of Apple listening in, you want to use the Enhanced Dictation option.

  5. Place a check mark in the Use Enhanced Dictation check box. This causes the Enhanced Dictation files to be downloaded and installed on your Mac. After the files are installed (you'll see status messages in the bottom left corner of the preference pane), you're ready to continue.

    Use enhanced dictation

Create a Custom Voice Command in macOS Mojave and Earlier

Now that Dictation is enabled, and the Enhanced Dictation files are installed, you're ready to create your first custom voice command. This example instructs the Mac to check for new mail whenever you say the phrase, "Computer, Check Mail."

  1. Open System Preferences, if you closed it, or click the Show All button in the toolbar.

  2. Select the Accessibility preference pane.

    Accessibility in macOS System Preferences
  3. In the left pane, scroll down and select Dictation.

    Accessibility System Preferences on a Mac
  4. Place a check mark in the Enable dictation keyword phrase box.

    enable dictation keyword phrase

    In the text field, just below the box, enter a word you want to use to alert your Mac that a voice command is about to be spoken. This can be as simple as the suggested default Computer or the name you gave your Mac.

  5. Click the Dictation Commands button.

    Dictation Commands button
  6. You'll notice a list of commands that are already understood by your Mac. Each command includes a check box to allow you to enable or disable the spoken command.

    Since there's no check mail command, you have to create it yourself. Place a check mark in the Enable advanced commands box.

    Enable advanced commands box
  7. Click the plus (+) button to add the new command.

    In the When I say field, enter the command name. This is the phrase you speak to invoke the command. For this example, enter Check Mail.

    Custom dictation options
  8. Use the While Using drop-down menu to select Mail.

  9. Use the Perform drop-down menu to select Press Keyboard Shortcut.

    In the text field that is displayed, perform the keyboard shortcut for checking mail, which is Shift + Command + N. That’s the shift key, the command key (on Apple keyboards, it looks like a cloverleaf), and the n key—all pressed at the same time.

  10. Click the Done button.

You created a new Check Mail voice command, and now it's time to try it out. You need to use both the dictation keyword phrase and the voice command. In this example, you check whether new mail is available by saying:

Computer, check mail

Once you say the command, your Mac launches the Mail app, if it isn't already open, brings the Mail window to the front, and then executes the Check Mail keyboard shortcut.

You need a microphone for voice control. Many Mac models come with built-in mics that work fine. If your Mac doesn't have a mic, use one of the many available headset-microphone combos that can connect via USB or Bluetooth.

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